Eurozone: The end of the Merkel method
3 July 2012
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
Let me get on with it – and trust me! In the midst of the European crisis, the German Chancellor’s usual approach has hit its limit. If she wants support for her policies, she first has to talk to all the people of Europe.
On May 16, 2010 Angela Merkel gave a speech to the national congress of the German Trade Union Federation in Berlin. It was no big news; the Chancellor gives a lot of speeches. But the conclusion of her speech is a good example of the communications corner into which she had manoeuvred herself and the rest of Germany.
She arrived at the congress to talk about a thousand and one points, as always very polite and informative, and ended with the controversial question of retirement at 67. She then uttered a phrase typical of the Chancellor: “I'm here to tell it like it is.”
What she wanted to say is: “With me, there’s no spin.” But her mistake is that it really ought to be someone else who gives that speech to the unions. In the Merkel system, though, it is always just Merkel. Her statement “I'm right here” has an unspoken follow-up: “What more could you want?” These days, she is acting like the most powerful politician in Europe.
All the same, the Chancellor has completed a historically ambitious program. In the way that others might say that they’ll go out for some fresh coffee, she sweepingly declares she will regulate the financial markets, introduce a new structure of government for Europe, save the climate and guard and preserve the prosperity of Germany, Europe and the West. Meanwhile the circle of those who work with her is constantly getting smaller. Strictly speaking, she’s becoming the sole member of this team.
Many journalists report on how effective “the small circle” can be. But if one wants to reshape Europe, it means the end of the small circle. That is fatal, because the result is an opaque cabinet policy that had its heyday during the period of enlightened absolutism: men and women of valour and spirit from across Europe who huddled behind double-doors to hatch plans and agree them.
Era of nation states
After this era, and not without reason, came the era of nation-states: the princes and their aristocratic experts had manoeuvred themselves into a near-fatal bankruptcy and avoided it only by making their subjects liable for the debts.
The word “citizen” then had a ring of safety and security for the financial markets: they, the “citizens”, would be the ones to vouch for all these little fiefdoms.
The Chancellor has chosen now of all times, in the very midst of the crisis, to narrow the political bedrock to her own persona. At some point “I'm right here” no longer works – especially if you are not actually present.
Merkel has not visited any of the southern European capitals to explain the German position. She could tell them: "What use is it to you, friends, when the aid drains away into the same channels they have been running out into all these past decades? When only the real estate sector, the financial sector and the football industry have any vitality left in them?"
Older Germans can imagine what [former foreign minister] Hans-Dietrich Genscher would have done: He would have practically taken up residence in Athens, the Greek foreign minister would have become his best friend; then the same thing in Rome, Madrid, Lisbon and back to Athens – and that just in the first week of the crisis.
A model for public diplomacy
The model state for public diplomacy remains the United States. A country that sends in Bill Clinton and Bush Senior during a crisis rarely comes across as disagreeable, especially when they have hospitals or power plants packed away into their luggage.
Although they cost millions, they still cost less than the hundreds of billions that have already been guaranteed by the German taxpayer. But to whom, and for what? This government does not explain that, and the Bundestag deputies find it hard to grasp themselves.
One, however, sees it clearly: “You could pretend this was easy,” she lectured a deputy in typical fashion, “but it is not. I’ve worked very hard at it!"
After years of this drawn-out crisis, the limits of this method are becoming obvious. There is no strategy for crisis communication, which means that there is no political strategy either. One would have to first identify and address those social strata that have an interest in European political integration, economic growth and technological progress – for example, the middle classes hungry for education.
Drifting into unemployment
Around the Mediterranean, parents are seeing their talented and industrious children drift into unemployment. These parents are the logical allies of a smart European reform policy – but who is talking to them? So far, the more extensive the crisis, the smaller the group of those working on solving it, and the greater the authority of the boss. It’s reminiscent of the late Soviet Union.
But civil society in the USSR was weak. Here it is not. You can ask something from the Europeans – and it will have to be asked of them.
Experts at the Boston Consulting Group – no left-wingers – have calculated that only a one-time tax of an average of twenty percent on Europe’s private wealth can clear a route out of permanent crisis.
If it should come to that, it remains unclear whether financing the banks with taxpayers' money will pass without protest. Very soon, we will be living and working very differently than we have so far. One can prepare for it. But she has to say it. “What more could you want?” That.
Translated from the German by Anton Baer